The Frugal Café | Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup"</a> | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com
Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com

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The Beautiful Burrito: Make Your Own and Save Money

By Vicki McClure Davidson

 

Here in Arizona, Mexican food is precious and dear to us. For me, it's an addiction. Homemade burritos are easy to make and help you save money while eating well. Feeding a group of friends or a teen athlete can be expensive, so burritos are a creative way to cut down on your food bill. We're lucky in that where we live, we get a steady supply of fresh bell, ancho, Hatch, Anaheim, yellow, jalepeño, serrano, and habañero peppers to use in making homemade Mexican food.

Some tasty green chili-chicken-potato burritos I whipped up early one Saturday morning for my athlete son. They were all devoured before the day was over. I'm glad I took a photo before he woke up. | Photo credit: V.M. Davidson
Some tasty green chili-chicken-potato burritos I whipped up early one Saturday morning for my athlete son. They were all devoured before the day was over. I'm glad I took a photo before he woke up. | Photo credit: V.M. Davidson

Usually, chili peppers (sometimes spelled chile peppers; the stand-alone word "chili" is usually reserved for a hearty, spicy stew, usually made with meat, beans, and peppers) are quite inexpensive. They average 50 to 75 cents per pound at the dollar stores and about double that at many grocery stores here in the Southwest. For a small amount of money, they offer a fabulous wealth of spicy flavor to perk up budget casseroles and soups. Hopefully, you can buy chili peppers cheaply in your area.

Chili peppers not only are a good source of vitamins, but many health experts assert that eating them helps people from getting cold viruses or other air-borne germs. A natural virus blocker and stopper, so to speak. Peppers are also reported to make other foods safer. Because of their chemical composition, peppers can reduce harmful bacteria in many foods.

Ounce for ounce, green chiles have more Vitamin C than citrus fruits and red chiles have more Vitamin A than carrots. Impressive!

Chili peppers add a fantastic zest to Mexican dishes. One of my favorite dishes to make, mainly to save loads of money and fill my bottomless-pit of a teenage son, is homemade burritos.

The popular and delicious burrito is a mainstay for many Hispanic kitchens to use up leftovers and, ultimately, save money and reduce food waste. This rich packet of spicy, moist filling is created by using a flour tortilla that is wrapped or folded around a filling of refried beans, Spanish rice, and/or meat. If beans and rice are used, meat is not needed for supplying protein, as the beans and rice combine to make a complete protein.

In the United States, while restaurants fill burritos with similar basic ingredients, including the addition of shredded lettuce, sour cream, yogurt, tomatoes, black olives, cheese, and guacamole, they also will fill them with more pricey ingredients, including crab, shrimp, lobster, filet mignon strips, and black truffles. They are also much larger than authentic Mexican burritos.

When making a burrito, the flour tortilla is usually lightly grilled or steamed to soften it and make it more pliable. A cold flour tortilla will tear or break when folded. If you don't want to grill or steam it, leaving it at room temperature for an hour or popping it into the microwave for about 10 seconds will also soften it. Be very careful when microwaving: it can quickly overcook and toughen the tortilla.

The word burrito literally means "little donkey" in Spanish. No one knows with any certainty where the name came from, but it is believed to have been derived from the appearance of a rolled up wheat tortilla, which vaguely resembles the ear of its namesake, pitas, or sandwiches. The outer layer of tortilla cradles a nourishing, spicy filling that can have a variety of foods in it, satisfying much of our dietary daily requirements: protein, calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, etc. The fillings are what makes the burrito so versatile. Vegetarian ones are satisfying a niche market, using squash, spinach, sweet potatoes, and other non-typical burrito vegetables.

Tortillas have grown in this country from a $300 million industry in 1990 to $5.2 billion in 2002. It's the second most popular bread on the market, after white bread, according to the Tortilla Industry Association. Much of that growth in revenue has been because of the falling out of vogue of bagels and the surge in popularity of burritos in taquerias and fast-food restaurants. According to Irwin Steinberg, the Jewish, New York-born executive director of the Dallas-based Tortilla Industry Association, said, "The reason tortillas have surpassed bagels is that bagels are principally a breakfast food. Tortillas can be used for all three meals in a day. It's a good piece of bread; easy to use, relatively inexpensive, and good for you."

However, many places charge up to $8.00 for one burrito, and while these are huge in size, still can be made at home much, much cheaper. One of the most expensive burritos served in a fine dining atmosphere could be one that has been sold as a daily special at Salon Mexico in New York City—a few years ago, it was $65 and filled with saltwater sashimi (raw fish that is similar to sushi, minus the vinegared rice). A "cheaper" burrito there sold for $45. No kidding.

Peppers and garlic give burrito fillings an additional boost in flavor, but cooks are not limited by the ingredients they use. | Photo credit: PDPhoto.org

 

Peppers and garlic give burrito fillings an additional boost in flavor, but cooks are not limited by the ingredients they use. | Photo credit: PDPhoto.org

 

Magic: Burrito Fillings and the Tortillas to Use

Here is where the culinary magic begins. All burritos made at home can be customized, whether it's to use up small bits of leftover meat or rice and beans or to satisfy individual taste buds. There are hundreds of possible combinations of fillings and spices, with only thing remaining constant: the tortilla.

There is much disagreement about which type of flour tortilla is the best tasting and should be used in burritos. The most common ones sold at the grocery store are Sonoran tortillas—delicate, flat, and thin— whereas Texas-style tortillas are thicker, chewier, and puffier. The Texas style is better for gorditas and fajitas, the Sonoran style is better for burritos and quesadillas (also called cheese crisps). Both use tortilla flour, which is different from bread flour. Tortilla flour is a special type of wheat flour that is most often used for quick breads, such as muffins, biscuits, and dumplings, and flatbreads such as chapatis and tortillas. I know of people from Texas who are purists and would never buy a package of Sonoran-style tortillas from the store. Tortillas, to them, have to be homemade and be the puffy Texas style, end of discussion, thank you very much.

Burrito fillings and toppings also meet with similar disagreement as to which combination of ingredients makes an "authentic" burrito. I've eaten in many Mexican (Sonoran style and New Mexico style, as well as several in restaurants in border towns in Mexico). Some insist on rice and bean combos. Others feel it isn't a "real" burrito if it doesn't have plenty of roasted peppers and garlic. And all I can say is, please stop arguing!

Authenticity (whatever in the heck that is), is not important. Taste and texture to your liking is everything, and you can do it in your own kitchen. And save money doing it.

There's a wonderful 2013 article posted at New York Times on making summer tacos with two different tomatillo salsa recipes that can be easily adapted for burrito fillings, so you might want to check it out.

All burritos are unique in their combinations of spices, herbs, and fillings—especially one of my favorites, which I've only found at a family-style Greek-Mexican restaurant in downtown Phoenix. It is made with lengua, delectably spiced beef tongue. Years ago, I was dared into ordering it by some friends. After my first hesitant bite, I was instantly in love. The mingled flavors of the tongue and delicate green chili sauce were indescribable, amazing, poetic... nothing like I had expected. I've not ever tried to duplicate it at home, knowing that the beef tongue was prepared and seasoned in such a way that would elude my efforts. I have no interest in recreating works of art fashioned by a master. I simply want to enjoy them whenever possible. And this baby was a work of art.

I still get cravings for a lengua burrito now and then. Now, THAT is a "real" burrito...

 

 

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Sources:
Keys, Lisa, The Jewish Daily Forward website, "The Tortilla Steps Up to the Plate, Filling the Hole Left by the Bagel," (www.forward.com /articles/7689/), July 18, 2003.
Mitchell, Patricia, Tex Cooking website, "How to Make Flour Tortillas (with Mixed Results)," (www.texascooking.com/features/ sept98flourtortillas.htm).
Recipe Tips website, (http://www.recipetips.com/kitchen-tips/t--1026/types-of-wheat-flour.asp). Vinje, Eric, "Chile Pepper Facts", (http://www.cosmicchile.com/xdpy/kb/chile-pepper-facts.html).